Monday, December 5, 2011

the hygiene hypothesis

washing hands | photo: Lars Klintwall Malmqvist
There seems to be an increasing number of people affected by asthma and allergies.  Especially children.

One reason put forward is that as we have become more focused on cleanliness, to the point where we have created problems.  Overuse of antibiotic cleansers has reduced our exposure to pathogens, or germs, in our environment.  Because our bodies have been designed to fight these germs, to develop a healthy immune system, when we severely reduce our environmental exposures it is theorized that our bodies over-react.  They become sensitive to increasingly more substances, most of them environmental or food exposures.  As odd as it may sound, the research supports this.  Studies show that children who grow up in rural areas, especially non-Westernized countries, with more exposure to a wider range of microbes, have a vastly reduced rate of allergies.

Of increasing interest to me is the concept that this hyper-clean state that we've created has affected our intestinal health which in turns leads to more problems.  Gary Huffnagle, co-author of the The Probiotics Revolution has gone a step further with the hygiene hypothesis and developed a concept that he calls the microflora hypothesis.  He posits that our Western lifestyle and diet have altered our microflora, our ecosystem, and opened us up to more allergies and, by extension, more digestive disorders.  By not gaining exposure to a wider range of microbes we are unable to build an ecosystem that is fully supportive of our overall health.

Part of the reason that this is of so fascinating to me is because in working with clients I am also seeing more and more digestive health issues.  And I believe the numbers are rising.  More leaky gut, more IBS, IBD, more dysbiosis.  Dr. Liz Lipski, author of Digestive Wellness, in her work shows that the immune system is very strongly tied to digestive function.

In order to support our health we need to stop killing off our symbiotic partners, those bacteria that inhabit our gut, through overuse of antibiotic and antibacterial products.  We also need to feed and support these probiotic colonies.  What do they eat?  Prebiotics.  Their food comes from insoluble fibers found in our food.  Berries, onions, legumes, oatmeal, and other whole grains support not only the probiotic bacteria, but also help maintain good bowel health.  We also need to re-inoculate our systems with a steady supply of healthy bacterial colonies.  Those are found in fermented foods such as kefir, kombucha, and kimchi.  Not that we need to eat an overwhelming amount of these on a regular basis, but they should be a regular part of our diet.

Research does not, as yet, appear to show how much we can reverse the affect on our immune systems, but we certainly can keep it from continuing to decline.  Dr. Natasha Campbell McBride, at the recent Wise Traditions Conference in Dallas, stated, "We are a shell, a habitat for our eco-system."  We need to suport our eco-system.  We can also protect future generations by focusing on and acknowledging that that eco-system needs to be fully supported in order to function properly.

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